I’ve been reading an interesting book (if you’re a policy wonk like me) called The Utility of Force. It’s by a British general and military historian who explores the changing ability of military force to be useful politically, or as the author puts it, to "have utility."
It got me thinking about the word "utility" and its application to other things. Instead of saying "Is this useful?" you ask "Does this object have utility?" To me the first question is more about the object’s usefulness to you, while the second is more about the object’s usefulness to anyone. There is also the question of exactly what the utility is — a hammer has a somewhat limited utility, while a computer has an almost infinite utility, depending on the software available for it.
So, here’s the question of this posting: Does a church have utility? And if so, to whom and for what?
Many people would answer "Yes" to this question, immediately and without hesitation. Many others would answer "No" just as quickly and with just as much certainty. My answer? "It depends." So much for easy answers.
It seems to me that many, many church people just assume that their church has utility. If pressed to explain how their church is useful, and to whom, and for what, they would probably move first to some variant of this:
The church (read: my church, not The Church) is useful to me as family, as home, as place where I feel loved and accepted, as place where I learn about God and the Bible, as place where I get to live out my gifts. The church is useful as activity, as entertainment, as avocation.
Some people, when pressed, would admit that many of these things can be done on your own, or outside an organized church, or indeed outside religion at all. So then they might move to some variant of this answer:
The church is useful to those not in it. It serves as a beacon of hope, of love, of acceptance, and of new life. For some it is a haven they seek; for others, it is a haven they stumble upon. In either case, it is a source of life for those who are hurting, lost, and dying.
Finally, a few people who are either more spiritually mature, or who have thought about these things at some point, may respond with the third and most theological answer of all:
The church is useful to God. It is God’s instrument in the world, used to make those within more spiritually mature and to give those outside a sense of who God is and how God is. The church is the Body of Christ, and therefore is the chief way that Christ continues to influence the world.
Impressive answers, all. A church that was useful, that had utility, in all these ways would be a wonder-full example of Church, a true oasis of the Eternal in this present age. But if these are the three possibilities of utility for the church — to its members, to other humans, and to God — then the next questions must be asked:
Is it possible for a church to only be useful to two of the three? To one of the three? Is it possible for a church to have no utility at all? Is it possible for a church to be, in reality, completely useless? And what would that look like?
As I said at the beginning, ever since I started reading The Utility of Force I’ve been wondering if we also need a book called "The Utility of Church." I have concluded, sadly, that it is certainly possible for a church to have less utility than it should, or even to have none at all. Furthermore, it is possible for such a church to not only survive, but to thrive. It is possible for a church to be very successful, in fact, and yet to have none of the utility that God intended it to have.
For utilmately, what we are looking for is not the church that is useful as an organization, or as an activity, or as a club. We are looking for the church that has spiritual utility. Only that quality deserves the name "church." All the others, in God’s economy, are useless.